Focus on Teaching and Technology Conference brings more than 1,900 educators together online in 20th year

by | Oct 11, 2021

The conference provides professional development on emerging trends in technology applications in higher education as well as online teaching strategies.
Saundra McGuire speaking to Jennifer McKanry and Keeta Holmes via Zoom

Saundra McGuire (top left), the director emerita of the Center for Academic Success and a retired Assistant Vice Chancellor and Professor of Chemistry at LSU, delivered the keynote address Sept. 29 during the 20th annual Focus on Teaching and Technology Conference, organized by staff members in UMSL’s Center for Teaching and Learning, including Assistant Director Jennifer McKanry (top right) and Assistant Vice Provost for Academic Innovation Keeta Holmes (bottom). (Screenshots)

Saundra McGuire remembers hearing the phrase “teach students how to learn” sometime back in the mid-1980s.

At the time, McGuire, now the director emerita of the Center for Academic Success and a retired Assistant Vice Chancellor and Professor of Chemistry at LSU, thought it was nonsense.

“How are you going to teach students how to learn?” she asked rhetorically last Wednesday while delivering a virtual keynote address for the Focus on Teaching and Teaching Conference, hosted by the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ Center for Teaching and Learning. “If they don’t know how to learn and you teach them how to learn, they’re not going to learn it because they don’t know how to learn. It just didn’t make any sense at all to me.”

McGuire’s developed a different view over the course of her long and decorated career, which included authoring a book titled “Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation.”

“Now I know exactly what it means,” McGuire said. “It means that we need to teach students that learning is a process.”

In her nearly 90-minute address, McGuire discussed the importance of metacognition and shared ideas for helping students better understand the way they take in and process material so they can build more effective study habits and increase learning.

More than 1,900 educators – mostly higher-education faculty members from across the St. Louis region and far beyond – registered to hear from McGuire and the other presenters in what was the 20th annual Focus on Teaching and Teaching and Technology Conference.

“Our priority is really to provide professional development for faculty, and particularly now in these challenging times of teaching during a pandemic,” said Jennifer McKanry, the conference co-chair and the assistant director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. “Many of our faculty are still teaching blended or online components to their classes, as well as juggling high flex environments that flex around potential student illness issues. We really wanted to provide a forum that helps support those faculty.”

The need is strong as evidenced by the conference’s record participation – more than 700 more registrants than in 2020 and more than 1,000 more than when the conference was last held in person in 2019.

McKanry and her co-chair, Mary Painter, CTL’s learning analytics coordinator, made the decision last spring to hold the conference virtually again this year.

“We wanted to be able to go forward and go forward full steam,” McKanry said. “We committed to a virtual format and one that really addressed a lot of the feedback we got from last year. We knew it meant we were going to be able to hold a solid conference and not have to make last-minute shifts.”

Cognizant of Zoom fatigue and attendees who would be logging into the conference while still fulfilling typical work and life responsibilities, they decided to stretch the conference over three days instead of two. They offered more session blocks with fewer concurrent sessions, allowing attendees to space out their participation and have the opportunity to participate in more sessions.

Bonni Stachowiak presenting via Zoom

Bonni Stachowiak, host of the “Teaching in Higher Ed” podcast and the dean of teaching and learning at Vanguard University, discussed the importance of cultivating imagination in students during her Sept. 30 keynote address in the Focus on Teaching and Technology Conference.

They also added a second keynote on Thursday, delivered by Bonni Stachowiak, the dean of teaching and learning at Vanguard University and the host of the “Teaching in Higher Ed” podcast, which has had more than 2.5 million downloads since its launch in 2014.

Stachowiak, who helped promote the conference to her podcast audience in the weeks leading up to it, used her keynote presentation to discuss the importance of imagination in learning.

“Not imagination for imagination’s sake,” Stachowiak said, “but imagination for igniting possibility within ourselves and our teaching, and most importantly, igniting a sense of possibility with students as well.”

McKanry and Pointer tried to replicate the in-person conference experience of attendees by incorporating a new tool called Gather Town for the conference’s virtual exhibit hall. The tool allowed attended to “walk” around the conference space with their avatar and engage with other attendees.

They built the lobby of the space to resemble the lobby of the J.C. Penney Conference Center, where the Focus on Teaching and Technology Conference has traditionally been held. They also took advantage of the program’s templates to build a virtual beach with chair yoga and a “Tiki Bar” for participants to hold conversations.

The conference also provided asynchronous opportunities to engage, including a series of pre-recorded Tech Tracks videos and associated discussion boards.

“Tech Tracks really highlight different tools that faculty enjoy using in their teaching,” McKanry said. “Usually, the requirement is that it has to be a free tool or part of some sort of a suite of tools that’s really readily available on most campuses. It’s something that helps faculty members engage and improve their teaching.”

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Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

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